Foreword : updated September 2011
Much has changed since the events of September 11, 2001. Our nation has new and different enemies, I have new friends and a new home, and life has an altogether different feeling.
The internet was a proving ground for story sharing and discourse in the days after September 11. I was fortunate enough to have a website at the time and the following is what I posted in response.
Writing my experience down was a way for me to record my thoughts and avoid having to tell my story over and over. Surely there are thousands of stories just like mine. I shared mine, at the time, so that friends and family not physically near New York might have a more personal connection to the event.
Today, this little document remains a reflection of a 19-year-old on the brink of change – and the experience that would ultimately lead him to never stop asking “why?”
Monday, September 17. 2001 – from New York City
This is my story. Though it accounts for nowhere near the amount of terror some have experienced in recent days, it is what I experienced. This is my way of sharing with friends and family where I was, what I saw, and what I felt in the hours that America came under attack on September 11, 2001. Writing has always been a great therapy (most significant next to music). Since I am still afforded no access to my personal belongings, including my music, this is how I am coping now.
First, let me say to each of you: thank you. After witnessing, firsthand, the worst act of terror ever committed on U.S. soil, I have found much comfort in the incessant support I have received from friends and family. I find myself in a continued state of shock, something I suspect will last for quite some time. Something about looking down 6th Avenue and seeing nothing in the sky just does not “click” with me. Though I know I have not felt terror in the way that those who lost loved ones and especially those who perished have, I know that I will forever be scarred by that dark Tuesday.
I commented once last week… ironically, not only has this been the most terrifying event I have witnessed, but it has certainly been the most unifying event I have witnessed. People have been brought together, nations have united, and New Yorkers have suddenly become polite. It is simply amazing. Not since the time of the colonies has this nation seen such a unified level of patriotism. I only hope that this continues to resonate in our generation; a generation that has known only peace and nothing of inconvenience for 20 years, and a generation that may be faced with one of the greatest struggles this nation has seen.
I hope that this retelling finds you well… It is most of my story, for now, though I will be revising and adding for several days. I most certainly welcome feedback, and would love to hear from everybody, as CNN no longer seems to fill the void of displacement. Please feel free to email me.
Monday. September 10. 2001
The day was spent continuing to get into the swing of things, as it was only the fourth day of classes for NYU. I had an early morning class, discussing the media in America. Little did we know that our entire syllabus would be changing because the biggest news story in decades would be occurring in less than 24 hours.
I spent lunchtime having peanut butter and jelly (they have a whole restaurant devoted to it!) with a friend, Julia, in the West Village. In the afternoon, I headed home to do laundry, take care of some organization, and then headed back to the Village for Chinese food at Suzie’s with Diana and Laura. By this time, nasty thunderstorms had set in for the evening.
I wasted a lot of time in my room on Monday night, talking on the internet, cleaning, and avoiding homework. I didn’t have class on Tuesday, so I didn’t feel too guilty about this.
After getting in touch with my friend Andrew to wish him a happy birthday, I settled in for the night, and went to bed. This was about 1AM.
Tuesday. September 11. 2001
8:50am – I remember the first time I looked at my clock.
I gather now that I was jarred from a state of deep sleep by the first plane hitting the World Trade Center (WTC). At 8:50, I was brought to full awareness by an unusually loud and bizarre siren which passed outside my window (and 12 floors below). I looked over at my roommate, Zack, who had also been awakened, and was staring back at me. I looked at him puzzled, and after a moment, we both dismissed the noise as part of the city.
I had put my head back on the pillow, and was on the road to sleep again, when our phone rang – single ring, so I knew it was a call from within the building. Zack answered, it was his girlfriend, Jessica. He came back in.
“Guess what?” he asked.
“The Trade Center got hit by a plane.”
And that was that. The day would drag on for another 16 hours that seemed to blur into eternity. How little we knew then.
I raced to my dresser, put a hat on my head, because I looked like a plane had hit me, and then raced to my desk to grab my camera bag. We took the stairs to the 15th floor, and then the elevator to the 31st floor, where Jessica lived in 3103. We got to her room, which had a perfect view of the trade center, and I began taking pictures. By now, it had to be about 9:00. As CNN has no doubt scrawled in our minds, 2 minutes later, at 9:02, a large aircraft struck the south tower.
Though some people in the room did not see it, and others contested it was a helicopter, I knew it was a plane. It was not until much later that I learned it had been a commercial jet and not a fighter jet as it initially appeared.
Of course, this was a crucial moment in the day’s events. At this point we became keenly aware that we were under attack, and not looking at the aftermath of an accident.
Strangely, in later recounting what happened, those in my building told me that the impact of the second plane was the loudest noise they had ever heard. I don’t recall hearing a thing, though. I think as that plane entered the view finder of my camera, I froze in fear.
Well, at this point, critical-thinking-Brad turned on, and photo-journalist-Brad turned off. I pointed out that these were likely terrorists, and that we had to get out of our building (200 Water Street – a 33 story tower located about half a mile from the trade center).
Zack and I went back to the room, and I put on the clothes that I had worn on Monday,because they were still the most easily accessible and still had my wallet and keys in the pocket. The three of us left the room at this point, and then left the building. On reaching the street, I became very interested in heading towards the towers to see if I could help in any way. At this point I separated from Zack and Jessica, and went on my own way.
I walked across John Street to Broadway, to see what I could do. Most of the way over there, business people were wandering in the opposite direction, not knowing what to do with themselves – something I’ve never seen before on the streets of New York.
I wandered around down on Broadway for a while, and realized that I could be of no help. For whatever reason (and I know I was not alone in this), at no point did it even cross my mind that the towers might collapse – and certainly not as imminently as 10 minutes from then. I continued walking. I snapped a few pictures. I wandered through the EMT staging area, and realized that there were more medics down there than they could deal with. There were injured people everywhere. Some had already died. It was here that grim reality began to set in.
I headed back.
I walked into my room as the phone was ringing. It was my dad, calling from work, who had heard the news and wanted to see if I was okay. Only later did I learn that they had been trying to reach me since about 9am my time… no cell phones were working and all (212) landlines seemed to be busy or dead. As I was talking to him, I started to feel a vibration that shook our building so violently. I started screaming, “oh my God, oh my God.”
The phone line went dead, and I tried to see out the window what was going on. From my living room, I could not see much of the WTC, because another building blocks it. However, I was able to turn around and look at CNN on TV. What I saw scared me. I had the volume muted since I had been on the phone, and I could see this picture of lower Manhattan as taken from the Empire State Building. There was an atomic-looking cloud spreading out over lower Manhattan. My mind was failing to grasp – I could not see what was going on out the window, so I turned on CNN?
I took the elevator down to 2, to go have a better look out a friend’s window. Once I arrived I found a hysterical Jenni, and what looked like a dirty, nuclear winter outside. I snapped a couple of pictures from the window of the street, and then sat down for a few minutes. At the time, we were being told by our building management to stay inside. My friend Gina came into the room moments later, and as the smoke cleared, I went up to my room with her to fetch some water and other items. From there we went back to the 31st floor, and found an open room, just as the north tower collapsed.
What a sight.
I really didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt as though my body was on autopilot, and I had dropped my mind somewhere back on Broadway in the midst of the bodies and debris.
We waited in this room for a few more minutes, and then the fire alarm went off. I guess it was around 11:00am. We raced down the stairs to the 2nd floor where we found more of our friends, and each took a damp T-Shirt to breathe through. We left the building with what we had taken whenever we each left our rooms, and that was the last time we were at 200 Water Street.
Upon exiting the building, I wanted to die. We were under attack. We were instructed to go uptown, but we couldn’t see a foot in front of our own faces, and got turned around several times in all the smoke and ash.
As we headed uptown, our group gradually became smaller and smaller. We acquired our friend Ben somewhere in Chinatown, and continued the long march toward air and safety – or so we hoped. We were hearing things about the Pentagon having been hit. We didn’t know that the attack on NYC was really over, so we were still rushing around in a crazy dash, trying to find somewhere that might be safe.
It was during this march to safety (and/or freedom) that we began to consider what had just taken place. We continued, in shock, to recount the morning.
We had just witnessed:
- the single worst act of terror ever committed on US soil.
- the destruction of the two largest structures in the city.
- the deaths of thousands of people.
Thus began a perpetual feeling of nausea that lingered for the rest of the day.
We finally made it to Greenwich Village, and eventually to Washington Square Park. From there, we could see downtown. From places we always looked to see the WTC – to help us find South when coming out of the subway – all we could see was an enormous plume of smoke and dust.
I now knew what it meant to be terrorized.
In the park we discovered more friends, including Sarah, Diana, and Lindsay. Most of us had not eaten all day, so the six of us headed to get some pizza (because what else would New Yorkers do after a terrorist attack?). After eating, Gina headed off to another dorm to seek refuge and the five of us continued on to my cousin’s apartment in Chelsea (another neighborhood).
From here we were able to get in touch with family, and digest several hours of CNN. By mid-afternoon we had a clearer understanding of what we all had really laid witness to, and that the attacks were over for the time being.
That evening, we headed our separate ways, each to different friends’ places to sleep the night, as we would not be returning to 200 Water Street for quite some time. I opted to stay with Sherry, my cousin, and her husband, Mark, for the night. I excused myself for a bit to go find a quick dinner. I wandered down to Tisch at Broadway and 8th to see if I could find anybody else I knew. Nobody.
I grabbed a tuna sandwich from the Delion, and walked back to the apartment. My emotions began to catch up with me.
I made it back to Sherry’s and found a fire truck outside. Thinking nothing of it, I wandered back into the building and returned to the apartment. Empty. Hmmm…
I sat down on the couch, and started to eat my sandwich. Seeing the phone on the table, I decided to call my dad and let him know what was going on. The first thing he said was, ”Brad, Sherry’s apartment is on fire. Take a train to Connecticut, Uncle Ned will pick you up out there.” Hmm… I think to myself. I don’t see fire. “Dad, I am sitting on her couch right now. There does not appear to be fire.” “Well, she left because there was a fire, she and Mark and the baby went to Connecticut.”
I did not want to spend the night alone after all that had happened. Since I could not get ahold of anybody (phones were dead, and I had no address book with me), I headed in the direction Grand Central. It was now about 9:00 in the evening. This was perhaps the most haunting and lonely walk I have ever made on this island. At 9:00pm on a Tuesday, 7th Avenue between 16th street and 34th street should be jumping. I could see Times Square up ahead by the time I got to 34th (which was how far I had to walk to find an open subway station). What was weird about this picture?
I could see THROUGH Times Square. In fact, I could see all the way up the street as far as my eyes could see. Times Square is not even that empty at 2am on Sunday. There weren’t even TAXI cabs out running around. It looked so desolate, it smelled so bad.
I made it to the subway, boarded, and found myself alone again. Something that has never happened to me. Arriving at Grand Central, I asked where to go for the train I wanted, and I was pointed in the direction, and told to run.
As is bound to happen to the film student, I lived out the famous scene: principal desperate character runs onto train platform as train pulls away at deathly SLOW pace. But train will not stop.
The next train did not leave for 2 hours, so I found a pay phone sat down on the floor and called home again. I talked politics (something I usually do not do) with my dad for quite some time, and then eventually made it to the train and out to Connecticut. It seemed like a peaceful, normal night outside of the city. My mind was in turmoil, though, and I had trouble falling asleep – feeling very alone.
Aftermath – a week on
Since the attack on America occurred, I have been displaced from my home. I have found myself staying in a variety of places. I thank Scott and Ki, Sherry and Mark, Ryan, and Ned and Cindy for putting me up in the past week. I realize that the trials I have faced in the last week in no way compare to those faced by the workers trying desperately to save lives, and rebuild the south end of the island of Manhattan. I also realize that the sacrifices I have had to make do not match the loss of over 5,000 [sic] innocent people due to the attack last Tuesday.
Since this all happened, I have ventured back down to the area twice. On Wednesday, the day after the attack, I went with a friend, Ki, all the way down to Chambers Street. What we saw was unreal. It was the first time I had seen this with my own eyes since I had fled the scene the day before, and it was good to see that the cleanup was underway, but some of the things we saw were still sickening. I snapped one picture during this expidition, a picture of a doorway covered in ash, in which a message of one person’s message of safety had been scrawled during the escape.
I went down there again yesterday. Most of the areas that could be were reopened, including the street my building is on. Unfortunately, there is no power down there, so we still cannot enter our building. Dust was still everywhere, and I could not help but notice the military stationed on nearly every corner. There were semi-truck-sized electric generators everywhere, and it was still a ghost town.
Through this, I have come to realize something important. Although the media can offer a great opportunity to be somewhere else without moving, it does not offer what real experience does. I think the one image that will haunt me forever is that second plane striking the south tower. It was absolutely terrifying. From where I was, the belly of that plane faced us and looked black as night as it banked toward the left and plowed through the upper floors of that tower. It is an image I have seen replayed over and over again on the television, but never from my angle – never with the intensity I felt as I watched it happen through my camera.
Thankfully, the school has been very good to those students who have been displaced by this disaster. On Saturday, the school dispensed 200 dollars in cash to every displaced student to buy clothes and other necessities. They also made arrangements for us to obtain replacement textbooks at no charge. Beginning Monday, we are being relocated to long-term temporary housing in two hotels uptown. While this does not mean I am going home, it does mean that I can start returning to some sense of normalcy.
I was very much in love with the room I had at 200 Water Street. Only two days before the attack occurred, I was sitting on my couch talking to my mom on the phone, and telling her how much my room felt like a home and not a dorm room. I am eager to return there.
Wednesday. September 26. 2001 – from New York City, via email
It is 11am, Wednesday, September 26, 2001,
- nearly 1,296,000 seconds after an airplane struck a building
- some 21,600 minutes since New York City – the city that doesn’t sleep – was put to sleep
- almost 360 hours after our confidence was tested
- around 15 days after I last woke up in my own bed
- over 2 weeks after life seemed to come to a standstill
Some things are the same: my room, though apparently trapped in time, is exactly as I left it. My bed was the same mess of twisted blankets that it was when I rolled over to see the black smoke in the air on the 11th. On the floor, my New York Times from Monday, September 10 gripes about the impending mayoral primary, which was to have been on the 11th. Things seem so different now…
Many things are different: downtown is still filthy. A residue of gray coats almost everything, even in the streets. The same smell that nearly suffocated us as we fled still lingers, and will linger as long as the rubble lies there. More than anything, our lives have changed. Little things, like sharp noises set us off into a whirl of paranoia.
On my way to get dinner tonight (my kitchen was emptied by the cleanup crews), I walked with a friend to Broadway and John Street. It was near where I took my pictures of the crippled trade center that Tuesday morning. What lies there now is a mess. It is a mess that is taller than any building in my suburban Chicago hometown, and it is a disaster area that will be in the cleanup process for a long, long time.
I was able to go home to Chicago for the weekend, which was a welcome relief to the nomadic life I had been leading in NYC for the previous two weeks. I saw my family and many friends – which was great relief in trying to process all of this.
Somebody asked me today if I thought I would have any interest in living down here next year. The thought had not crossed my mind until then, and with only a moment’s hesitation I responded: More than anything else today, I felt like I had come home. Walking down Fulton Street with all of what I owned in hand (a backpack and a duffel bag), I was overcome by the thought that I had conquered something – a personal triumph of sorts. Having been through all of this has only made me more attached to this area, and it would be hard to get me to leave now. I hope that in the coming months and years, this will become an even more vibrant area.
I know that New York City will be stronger when this is all said and done. I can already see it here, and it continues to amaze me. I know that we will rebuild, and I know that we will go on. However, it is important that we keep reflecting on what has happened, and keep processing what is going on in our minds. It would be tragic, at this point, if we let our anger get the best of us. While last week may have been the darkest hour we have known, I know that the coming time will be the brightest we have seen.
Again, I offer my continued thanks to everybody who has offered to listen to me, and offered to send support in any way over the last several days. It has, no doubt, been a trying time for all of us. Please drop me a line if you find the time, I would love to hear from you.